Are we Vikings or Scandinavians?

Elisabeth I. Ward

Photo courtesy of Olavs Menn
Vikings were more than raiders, as reenactment groups like Olavs Menn are making known. Modern-day Scandinavians must also take care of our image.

Dr. Elisabeth I. Ward
PLU Scandinavian Cultural Center

What do we mean when we talk about things like the “Viking spirit” and “Scandinavian identity”? What does it mean to be “Norwegian American”? These are questions I deal with all the time in my work at the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University, a college started by a Lutheran Norwegian pastor in 1890 and attended by many Norwegians and Norwegian Americans through its 125-year history. It is also a question I used to deal with when I worked at the Smithsonian Institution on an exhibition about the Vikings called Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. These days, with the election bringing to the surface so much about the deep, bitter racial divides in the United States, I am reminded of some of the controversy around our use of the term Viking when I worked in Washington, D.C.

When people hear the word Vikings, they think of lots of things. Maybe they think of a huge hulking man dressed in fur with long hair and wearing a horned helmet. Or maybe they think of seafarers setting off across the horizon on open-decked boats. Or maybe they think of farmers and blacksmiths in the valleys of Scandinavia, calling on the Old Norse gods of Thor and Odin to help them through their day. For some people, though, Viking is a code word for strong white culture, for Aryan superiority; that is the way it was used by the Nazis and that meaning still exists in the popular imagination.

It is the same with the word Scandinavians. When some people hear that term, they think of beautiful, tall blond-haired and blue-eyed women. Others think of the Nobel Peace Prize and the steadfast diplomats that keep world order or social innovators that have created an equitable society. Or the ground-breaking icons of Scandinavian design, music, art, and fashion come to mind. To the immigrants that founded PLU, it was obvious: it meant to be pioneering, industrious, god-fearing farmers and fisherman. But some people today think of Anders Breivik and a homogenous, white society so upset about the influx of migrants into their countries that they closed their borders.

I used to be worried about managing the reputation of the Vikings, and I worked hard to make people think of Vikings more as craftsmen and seafarers than as superstitious or violent heathens. To me it was important to depict them as real, well-rounded people, not because I am of Viking heritage myself, but because the past was as complicated and messy, non-stereotypical, and disorderly as life is today. In my mind, since the people we call Vikings actually lived once upon a time, they deserve to be treated like real, complex human beings. Not stereotypes.

Now I feel a similar sort of urgency about managing the reputation of Scandinavians. I am the director of a center dedicated to celebrating Scandinavian and Norwegian heritage on a college campus that is very concerned about the election of Donald Trump. There is a sense that it was the Scandinavian Americans in the Midwest who swung the election away from Hillary towards Donald: white, Christian, rural voters. That is a difficult thing for some people to process, because it challenges the idea of what it means to be Scandinavian and Scandinavian American. The students at this university want to know why people voted the way they did, and they want to know if they did it out of malice. In other words, they want to know if Scandinavian Americans are the aggressive descendants of ruthless Viking warriors, ready to sack and destroy whatever is different from themselves. They want to know if they should be scared.

I have spent years attempting to define the Vikings in a more favorable and realistic light, and I will spend the foreseeable future trying to show the best side of Scandinavians and Scandinavian Americans. We all have that duty and responsibility, no matter which way we voted. To explain the values and the ideas that motivated that decision, and to make sure the term “Scandinavian” is a term we all can still embrace and celebrate. Because it represents fairness, kindness, honesty, creativity, and hospitality. At least that’s what I will be telling my students.

Dr. Elisabeth I. Ward is the Director of the Scandinavian Cultural Center at Pacific Lutheran University.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 16, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.